Mikebasil's Blog Stormy Weather (part One)
Some years ago I was floating on a great expanse of sparkling blue, ocean beneath a vivid azure sky and the searing heat of the southern sun baking the decks of our small craft. I was on a sport fishing boat out of Portimao in Southern Portugal ostensibly trying to catch sharks from the vastness of the Eastern Atlantic. I wasn’t doing very well at it but then neither was anybody else on the chartered boat.
At least I was doing better than the party of Dutch anglers on the boat. They had dined well and d***k heartily on the way out to our mark some twenty miles offshore and out of sight of land. They were paying for it now though. Sport fishing boats with their high observation towers are somewhat top heavy by nature and roll wickedly even in a mild swell. The Dutchmen were all leaning over the guard rails being deliciously sick. I don’t know why, and it is nothing to be clever or smug about, but I just never get seasick even in the foulest conditions afloat.
I was enjoying myself. I was stripped down to a bikini and soaking up the sunshine on the prow of the boat. We’d had pods of dolphins playing around the boat which was just wonderful. There were hopeful looking gulls trailing us as we drifted although we’d had little in the way of refuse to reward their vigil with other than the unappetising contents of Dutchmen’s stomachs. Occasionally we were visited by low flying sleek gannets that arrowed over the boat for all the world like fighter bombers on a strafing run. We’d even been joined briefly by a Great Skua, a species of bird I had never seen before. My enjoyment was being enhanced by an old American fishermen on the boat who was regaling me with ever more outrageous lies about his fishing exploits and a young, good looking German boy who was plying me with beer, offering to smear sun cream on me and attempting to ascertain what my plans for the evening were once we were ashore. It was good to be at sea.
The one thing lacking from this halcyon idyll was any sign of fish. There had been a small flurry of activity early on and some hopeful signs as the skipper and his mate had set the lines but since then nothing. I didn’t much care to be honest. It was just good to be out on the briny and the present company didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the thought of what would happen should it become necessary to haul a large and angry shark inboard. The men whose job it was to deal with any piscine predator, our Portuguese skipper and his sidekick, had retired to the boat’s cabin in apathy a long time ago and were now steadily working their way through an alarming quantity of strong wine and having an incomprehensible but heated conversation about something.
Thus when the ratchet on the reel of the fishing rod allocated to me sounded an angry buzz it caught everybody by surprise not least of all me. As the sole representative of the female gender aboard I felt it incumbent on me, for the fairer sex’s pride, to take responsibility for this sudden intrusion into our peaceful interlude on the high seas. I was downright nervous about it I have to confess. Picking up that fishing rod to set the hook was one of the bravest things I had ever done. I imagined some frightful toothy monster had engulfed my bait that would whip me effortlessly over the gunwale and engulf me in its jaws as a light snack before turning to the major business of smashing the boat to smithereens and devouring every man aboard.
Well it was a shark but it was never going to terrify the bathers on some unsuspecting beach. To cut a long story short, while a lot of men flapped around me offering unhelpful advice, I hauled a small blue shark to the boat. There was nothing particularly clever about this. The fishing tackle we had been equipped with was designed to stop a three hundred pound Tiger Shark in its tracks. This abject looking little fish perhaps weighed about twenty five pounds. It was seriously outgunned.
Having got it to the boat however it became increasingly apparent that none of my male assistants knew what the devil to do about it and there was still no sign of the skipper or his mate. Rather enjoying being at the centre of attention, I did something so audacious that it still amazes me. Waving my retinue of ineffectual males aside, I grasped hold of the leader, dragged the fish alongside and then reached over the side of the boat to grab the fish by the wrist of the tail. Then, as the circle of men around me retreated to a safe distance, I heaved the fish inboard. It was a proud day for womankind!
To my relief the shark was only lightly hooked and I was able to extract the hook safely. Then I took the time to admire it. It was the first time I had ever seen a blue shark up close and I was stunned by just how beautiful it was. Of course I had expected any shark to have the clean lines of its kind. What I didn’t expect was the colour. You always think of a shark as sleek, streamlined and beautifully proportioned but you don’t expect a shark to be colourful. I found out then that they weren’t called a “blue” shark for nothing. Above the pristine white underbelly the flanks of that little shark were an almost impossibly iridescent royal blue shimmering like a polished gemstone in the sunshine. It was breathtaking.
The German boy I’d been flirting with all day told me to hold it up while he took a photograph. I wonder whatever became of that photo. I was even colour matched; my blue bikini not too far away from the colour of the fish. Me in a bikini in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean holding up a shark would have been one for the record books. Then, with the formalities completed, I lowered my little shark back over the side of the boat, held him for a few seconds until I felt him kick and then released back into the Atlantic depths. I hope he grew up to become a big bad shark to frighten all the swimmers on the Algarve coast.
It was while I was watching my little shark vanish back into the depths that I became aware of the little black bird skittering across the water a few yards away. I raised my head to look at it in interest. There was another one and then yet another. They were tiny compared with the nearby gulls; smaller than a starling with white flashes on their rumps and oddly dangling legs. Even as I watched more and more of them appeared until there were dozens of them flitting past us all determinedly heading north eastwards towards land.
My German admirer was pressing a cool beer into my hand (he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply) and telling me how brave I was but I was distracted. I pointed out the birds to him. I must have sounded concerned for he took the opportunity to snake a hand around my waist comfortingly. This would have been rather pleasant ordinarily but now it seemed an irrelevance for I felt a prickling of alarm running down my spine; a sudden sense that something was terribly, terribly wrong. My German friend seemed to think the birds were cute. Well they WERE cute but that was beside the point. I’d not seen these birds before but I was an avid student of nature and I knew what the birds were. They were storm petrels!
Storm petrels are birds that live an almost totally pelagic life out to sea foraging off tiny surface crustaceans and other life. They come to land only to breed on remote rocky islands and headlands. Otherwise you very rarely see them close inshore. When you do they are the heralds of bad weather for they will run or be blown before ocean storm fronts and that’s what gives them their name. To see whole masses of them all heading determinedly in one direction could only mean one thing. I raised my eyes from them and looked toward the south west; the direction from which they were all so steadily moving. There, far on the horizon, was one of the most terrifying spectacles I had ever seen.
The clear divide between the azure Atlantic water and the sky above had vanished to be replaced by a solid black wall obliterating the horizon menacingly in evil brooding horror. It seemed to have come from nowhere, this dreadful apparition, as if it had sprung unannounced from the bowels of hell. There had been somewhat of a breeze most of the day and some swell but these winds had died away as if to make way for their Lord and Master marching inexorably in our direction. I can’t describe the sudden dread that black wall inspired in me. We were in a small fishing boat, afloat on the Atlantic Ocean, twenty miles away from haven and one of the most formidable storm fronts I had ever seen was bearing down on us rapidly.
In fear I dashed for the cabin. Our skipper and his mate were sat at a small table. There were four empty wine bottles on the table and they were half way down a fifth! That our crew was not only so incompetent as to not be checking the shipping forecasts but also clearly intoxicated was hardly reassuring. The skipper was red faced and thumping on the table as he made some point to his companion as I barged in. I interrupted him in full flow and they glanced at me in slight annoyance as I yelped at them. They clearly thought women had no place in the inner sanctum of their vessel. I was taking no prisoners though. I virtually dragged the skipper out on deck and pointed to the horizon which even in my short absence had grown ever more forbidding.
The bl**d drained from the skipper’s face as he saw the storm approaching. I have never seen a man sober up so fast in my life! Within seconds he was hauling in lines and shouting instructions to his mate who emerged bleary eyed from the cabin. Then our engine roared into life and we were running before the storm literally for our very lives with that monstrosity snapping at our heels all the way back to harbour.
We made it.... barely. By the time we clawed our way back into the relative safety of the harbour the storm was upon us. Vision was blotted out in sheets of rain, the wind grew to a terrifying howl that could paralyse you with fear and the soft Atlantic swell had turned into a maniacal maelstrom of colossal waves battering the shore line. We staggered off the boat onto shore as the hurricane gusts of wind threatened to blow us clean off the jetty and saturated us instantly with the driving rain. I have never been so pleased to feel solid ground under my feet. The storm left chaos in its wake as it battered the southern coast of Portugal and I never did see that good looking German boy again. But I was glad to be alive.
The memory of that terrifying storm is just one of my recollections of times when I have been truly frightened by the weather. The awesome power and terror in the f***e of a storm is something that always impresses itself upon me as does the grandeur and majesty of it. Recent events have brought those memories and feelings back to haunt me and that is the reason for this series of blogs.